Two Essential Advent Themes for 2020

Q

How should we approach Advent in a year of pandemic and racial strife?

A

Let me begin by noting my primary concern: that churches will settle for an Advent season that is too small and too sentimental. It’s so tempting to reach for the spiritual comfort food of warm carols and soft candlelight in ways that detach them from the source of true strength and comfort and fullness of the gospel.

So yes, let it be an Advent of comfort. Let us cherish how our coming Lord arrives as the sun “with healing in its wings.”

Let it also be a season for proclaiming jubilee, the way in which the past and future comings of Christ upend violence, injustice, and all that is opposed to God’s shalom, a coming in which the poor and lowly are raised up and the mighty are taken down from their presumptuous positions of power.

As you plan, try thinking of these two themes as if they are two kinds of light (warm light and cool light) or two textures (soft fabric and rough fabric) or two palettes of color (one that is soft and warm, one that is bright and vibrant).

Less Familiar Advent Songs of Justice, Righteousness, and Shalom to Consider

Then think about how texts and songs—and the particular melodies and rhythms of a given arrangement—fall into those two categories. “Silent Night,” LUYH 85, GtG 182, SSS 83 sung quietly accompanied by an acoustic guitar, is “warm” and “soft,” as is pretty much every arrangement of “Away in a Manger.” LUYH 86, GtG 114/115, SSS 79“My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout / Canticle of the Turning,” LUYH 69, GtG 100 sung to the rugged tune “Star of County Down,” is more “cool,” “rough,” and “bright,” especially with a text like this:

Let the king beware
for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor
shall weep no more
for the food they can never earn;
there are tables spread,
every mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.

—Rory Cooney, “Canticle of the Turning,” based on the Magnificat, © 1990 GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Try starting your planning by categorizing the twenty or so Advent songs your church already loves to sing. I am not going far out on a limb to suggest that most churches will have more songs in the “warm and soft” category.

Then, accept the discipline of insisting that each service have both kinds of texts and songs. Jesus comes with comfort for the brokenhearted and with justice for the oppressed.

Once you start looking at the Bible and at your song list with these lenses in place, you’ll notice striking juxtapositions in many places. In Psalm 103, for example, we praise a God who not only “heals all your diseases,” (v. 3) but also “works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed” (v. 6).

This in turn shapes how we define and use many key terms in our theological and pastoral vocabulary. The term “peace,” or “shalom,” as sung by the angels to shepherds, refers to at least two quite different dimensions of goodness: one with a scope as vast as the cosmos, and one that is as intimate as our own interior lives, often hidden from everyone but God. “Shalom” means rightly ordered relationships in society, culture, and creation as well as inner tranquility. The gospel of peace comes with healing both for neighborhoods that are racked with violence and for hearts that are filled with turmoil.

Occasionally, remarkable music weaves both dimensions tightly together. Felix Mendelssohn’s Advent anthem “There Shall a Star Come Out of Jacob” begins and ends warmly and softly, but its middle section is filled with cool, fierce, dramatic acclamation of a Lord who comes “with might destroying” the forces of evil.

By all means, let us sing warm carols by candlelight, cherishing our loved ones and basking in the glow of any tranquility the Holy Spirit graces us with. How much deeper that sense of peace will be if we also resist the powerful temptation to ignore Advent’s fiercely prophetic elements oriented around justice, righteousness, and cultural shalom.

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.